Race as Ethnic Identity in America

The United States defines their different ethnic cultures within its society by race. The U.S. census limits the types of races to six. In America especially, this system of dividing people by color, although a new concept regarding human history has become a social norm. Despite the natural and social sciences’ transition away from and debunking race as a natural phenomenon the U.S. still chooses to delineate its citizens by race.

Ethnic-Racial Identity

Anthropologist and historian, Audrey Smedley, Ph.D. in “Race and the Construction of Human Identity,” defines the phrase racial group as “the organization of all peoples into a limited number of unequal or ranked categories theoretically based on differences in their biophysical traits.” Smedley argues that race as we know it today did not exist in ancient civilizations and that past human beings categorized themselves according to culture, city, occupation, and the like.

Also, Smedley carefully outlines in her piece that scholars, particularly biologist and anthropologists, connect racial identity to social construction. Smedley draws a distinction between race and ethnicity, which in modern times has been treated “as if they are similar phenomena.” According to Smedley, in the U.S. race has become a part of identity that is “the biophysical features of different populations, […] internalized as sources of individual and group identities”.

Racial identity as perceptionU.S. Census Bureau Racial Groups

The U.S. Census Bureau, as defined by the Office of Management and Budget, categorizes its citizens into six racial groups: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or another Pacific Islander, and White. A citizen may choose one or more of these six categories.

The Office of Management and Budget also provides working definitions for each racial category. For instance, a person who chooses the category of white is defined as a “person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”

Citizen Identity & Race

So, what happens if a person defines themselves as being of mixed race? The census remedies this by allowing individuals to choose more than one category, but the adherence to race as identity produces, according to Smedley, a “conditioned […] belief in the biological salience of ‘race’”. In essence, the race has inseparable physical and cultural components. Therefore, “identity is biology, racial ideology tells us, and it is permanent and immutable.”

Smedley loosely defines ethnicity throughout her piece as a nation of people with common cultural practices. As evidenced through the census, the U.S. blurs the line between race and ethnicity. Qualifying, or rather attempting to qualify large groups of people into one neat category creates a dangerous cultural construct in a multicultural society. It fuels division because of socially constructed differences when looked at closely may not exist.

Smedley recommends that society recognize “the reality of the racial worldview and how it developed as a sociocultural reality” to break free from this kind of identity. Thus, realizing that race as ethnic identity forces individuals to fit “into limited ‘racial’ categories” society, particularly American society can change how it looks at “human diversity.”


“Federal Register Notice.” Whitehouse.gov, Office of Management and Budget, 30 Oct. 1997. Web. 19 Feb. 2010.

Smedley, Audrey. “‘Race’ and the Construction of Human Identity.” American Anthropologist 100.3 (1998): 690-702. Print.

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